Minister claimed immunity

The Associated Press/December 15, 1997

TULSA -- Two Tulsa women have been awarded $390,000 in a slander suit that began after the minister to one of the women told his congregation that they were involved in a lesbian affair.

The civil trial for the Rev. Ernest G. Bass, the First United Pentecostal Church, the Oklahoma District of the United Pentecostal Church International and its superintendent, Robert D. Whalen ended Friday, more than three years after the incident occurred.

Bass made the comments during an evening worship service in July 1994.

Rhonda J. Morrison and Cynthia A. Gass each were awarded $20,000 for slander, $150,000 for invasion of privacy and $2 for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The defense maintained that what Bass said was the truth, and therefore, could not be considered slander.

The defense also said Bass' announcement should receive ''ecclesiastical immunity'' under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

According to testimony, Ms. Morrison's husband, Steve Martens, went to talk with Bass about sexual problems within the marriage. Bass reportedly quizzed Martens about whether his wife was a lesbian.

Martens, who was also a licensed minister, went back to Bass to ask for permission from the church to get a divorce because he thought his wife was having an affair with another woman, according to testimony.

Bass reportedly told Martens that he had to get proof about the affair before a divorce could be sanctioned by the church. Otherwise, Martens' minister's license could be in jeopardy.

Martens hired a private detective to tap phones and use video surveillance and later confronted his wife, who reportedly confessed to a lesbian affair.

But on the witness stand, Ms. Morrison said she has never confessed to a lesbian affair. Both women have said they are only platonic friends and that they believe homosexuality is wrong.

A number of defendants, including Martens and other church members who spread the allegations, settled out of court before the case went to trial.

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